29 May 2012

Chernobyl Diaries

Directed by: Bradley Parker
Written by: Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke
Full credits at IMDb

The most serious threats are invisible in the nuclear nightmare Chernobyl Diaries. Sure, there's a bear, wild dogs, and eerie architecture, but the most dangerous hide either in shadows or in plain sight, given away by a glimpse from the camera or a bleeping Geiger counter—they're radiation and its mutated victims. First-time director Bradley Parker—who cut his teeth doing visual effects for Matt Reeves, James Gray and others—exploits silence and darkness more than their opposites, keeping his monsters hidden from view, instead warming you to his charismatic actors before threatening them with simple thuds and other vaguely menacing sounds. He's an expert tension creator: his camera sticks too close to characters when you wish it would pull back (like Ti West's did in The Innkeepers), and hangs back too far when it ought to be closer; you feel like you're watching, but also like you're being watched.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

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25 May 2012

Event: Alex Ross Perry Q&A on The Color Wheel

Fresh off a weeklong engagement at BAM, The Color Wheel opened for a week at Cinema Village. "This is very exciting," director Alex Ross Perry wrote on his Facebook wall. "I saw The Brown Bunny for the second time at Cinema Village." At a Q&A with The New Yorker's Richard Brody on Wednesday, the second-to-last day of the BAM run, Perry talked about Vincent Gallo, Philip Roth, incest, and the differences between his character and his real self. (Mostly, it has to do with a belt.)

Alex Ross Perry loves BAM, so much so that he wore the free BAM socks he was recently given to a Q&A at the Rose Cinemas after a screening of his breakthrough feature, The Color Wheel, making him the first director, he hoped, to wear BAM socks at a BAM Q&A. Like his film, Perry can be silly, but also serious, cutting, and droll. His influences are varied, but Philip Roth is probably the biggest on the film's story and tone, he said—"humor plus the existential sense of sexual dread"; it's no accident that the credits use the typeface from the first edition of Portnoy's Complaint. (Perry said he spoke to the font's original designer, who was excited about their using it, and who "gave us advice, which we didn't use, on how to make the T better.")

Keep reading this dispatch at The L Magazine.

17 May 2012

The Woman in Black

Directed by: James Watkins
Written by: Jane Goldman
Full credits at IMDb

Hammer Films announces that it's back in business with The Woman in Black, which employs some of the renowned horror studio's flagship cliches: misty marshes, Victorian/Edwardian mores, and gloomy Brits. As directed by James Watkins, whose previous feature Eden Lake was efficient but bland, it's a masterpiece of atmosphere, its horror grounded in the well-defined psychological reality of its protagonist. (The script is by Jane Goldman, who also had a hand in last summer's emotionally rich X-Men: First Class.) Daniel Radcliffe, fresh off Harry Potter and commanding the film with his anguished and expressive gaze, plays Arthur Kipps, a London lawyer sent north to close an estate; it's located in a unwelcoming town, the estate itself amid a bleak landscape wherein a Baskerville hound might prowl. Outdoor white-out fogs compete with the shadowy interiors, dark corners and corridors of the dead woman's mansion—dusty, decrepit, and dark even by daylight—where things have a tendency to go bump and pitter-patter.

The house and hamlet are haunted literally by the title character; but the cursed country town where it's located is also haunted figuratively by the many deaths of its children—Arthur fits right in! The Woman in Black is a film awash in dead kids; for Arthur, they are an understandable manifestation of his torment: his own son, after all, was responsible for killing in childbirth his beloved wife, for whom he still mourns years later, his eyes heavy with bereavement. (We see her—in drawings, flashbacks, and fantasies—dressed in an angelic white, the negative-image of the title's murderous ghost.) Kipps's mere presence in the town costs the lives of many children, the symbolic result of his implicit resentment of his own son. The crumbling estate becomes a physical representation of Kipps's and the town's griefs—as black and pernicious as the deepest recesses of their respective souls. The pleasures of Watkins's film are the astoundingly bleak setting and its moon- and candle-lighted creepery; but what makes it satisfying are the coherent psychological underpinnings. Grade: B

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The Devil Inside

Directed by: William Brent Bell
Written by: William Brent Bell and Matthew Peterman
Full credits at IMDb

The central tension in exorcism movies is that between religion and psychology: is she—it's always a she—possessed, or just crazy? But that's not really an issue in The Devil Inside. "How do you know when [a case of possession] is real?" one character asks an exorcist. "You know," he answers. Bam! The question here isn't whether possession is real—it's what the church is doing to fight it. Or, isn't doing! That's right, the latest exorcism movie, about a documentary film crew following a team of unorthodox spirit-expellers, is an attack on bureaucracy—but also against the cultural forces that corrupt the purity the church protects.

The movie's exorcists, operating outside the diocese, are coded as mavericks, enemies of rules and regulations who even smoke cigarettes and drink wine. But, you know, some rules—God's rules—ain't for breaking. The movie slants conservative: it's anti-education (as when one priest says "you'll learn more in five minutes of an exorcism than you will in three months of some class"), and it's anti-abortion, as one character is made to feel shame about one in her past, even though a doctor recommended it (what does science know that God doesn't?); those possessed use foul language and bleed from their vaginas, linking possession with sexual maturation. Such cultural evils are so strong they can even corrupt priests—i.e., the church.

Of course, were priests to swear, it might not be so bad; some of God's rules only apply to women. As for the guys, one of the male characters' sin is his camera: his probing, his voyeurism. He's detested by all the other characters for his dimwittedness and arrogance. (When a female character has a harrowing emotional experience, he dickishly remarks from behind a viewfinder, "great! Great stuff!") One by one, the movie's evil demon will possess, attack, shame, or kill these men and women, filmmakers and priests; its function is to call out their sins, and punish them with death. Sounds a bit like the Catholic church. Grade: C

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Silent House

Directed by: Chris Kentis and Laura Lau
Written by: Laura Lau
Full credits at IMDb

Silent House has a silly payoff, but for most of its 85-minute run time, it's as tense as piano wire. Presented deceptively as a single take, it's actually a series of takes edited "invisibly," with the cuts craftily hidden, a la Rope. But whether it's genuine or not has little bearing on its effect: the confining seeming lack of edits is, duh, thrilling. Set almost entirely in a boarded up house—and often lit by the actors—it gets its scares the old-fashioned way, with creaks, bumps, and creeping around in the dark. You feel like a character in the film, slowly poking through this empty house, gripped with anxiety.

But really it's Elizabeth Olsen who's doing the poking; trapped in this house with what we believe to be a psychokiller—the film plays on a familiar structure of nightmares, the inability to escape; even when Olsen escapes the house, she's brought right back—she's terrorized almost exclusively by sounds, shadows and blurs—by the elements of cinema itself. The camera swings so fast you can't ever really see what makes Olsen jump; it's the jumping itself that's so unnerving. Silent House makes you afraid of fear, makes you react to reactions.

Olsen is a great anchor, commanding what's essentially an 85-minute close-up. She's best when she's hiding out, trembling under a table, shrieking without making a sound. With such mastery of form and performance, it's unfortunate that the movie gives in to some late-act twists, adding a psychological complexity the movie doesn't need. (The lake house has a mold infection—it's a metaphor for the unseen, underlying rot in the foundations of her family!) Without such High Tension-esque inanity, the movie is a terrific formal exercise, a terrifying dissolution into subjective nightmare. Grade: B

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Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Lem Dobbs
Full credits at IMDb

Steven Soderbergh's fleet, pulpy, gripping, and fun Haywire is artful action par excellence—and a lefty parable about the unreliability of private contractors. It opens, like Martha Marcy May Marlene, in upstate New York: a young woman (Gina Carano) is in a diner, on the run, when one of the men out to find her appears. But she's no broken Marcy May type—she's more of an empowered Lisbeth Salander, kicking the asses of the men who would do violence to her. Her retribution is so violent, in fact, that people in the theater with me gasped and, out loud, asked her to stop. She kills one foe by wrapping her legs around his throat and pulling his face into her crotch. (Despite this feminine kind of violence, she's coded male, spending her free time oiling guns. "I don't wear the dress," she says.)

You can keep your indie Soderbergh: the prolific ad absurdum director—Contagion came out what felt like days before this movie—is at his best when he's in full Hollywood mode, here crafting a semi-homage to the 70s' international-espionage films, replete with slick montages. (He's also the poet of hotel and conference rooms, making sickly modern lighting look as rich as paint.) It's old-fashioned yet dynamic: the fight scenes and stunts are wonderfully naturalistic, rough-and-tumble martial acts that resemble dances in their physicality (Carano is a retired MMA star); the foot chases through alleys and across roof tops are tense, the black-and-white slo-mo climaxes, beautiful. And though the thin script—by Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh's collaborator on Kafka and The Limey—offers little in the way of characters, back story, or motivation, there is a fun little moral. Carano works for a spy firm privately contracted by the federal government, but her employer is into some shady shit. Many double crosses and much perfidy later, the failure of the private sector, the face of sinister capitalism, is plain. "The motive is money," the bad guy admits. "The motive is always money." Grade: B+

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Directed by Wim Wenders
Full credits at IMDb

Pina's title refers not just to the late choreographer Pina Bausch but also to the institution she founded and the ideal she embodied—that dance is life. Wender's 3D documentary tears the dances off the stage and drops them into the real world, letting Pina's troupe fill the spaces between the major set pieces (like her rivetingly violent "Rite of Spring," all writhing, thrashing, and toppling over) with choreography in train stations, trams, street corners, forests, and streams. Every dancer is introduced with a short individual dance that defines their personality. Wenders also lets them talk, but we never see them speaking; the movie pushes a philosophy that words are necessary but not sufficient. Like music or the image, dance transcends language, expressing the ineffable—compensating when words fail.

Shooting in 3D, Wenders restores some of the theatricality that would otherwise be lost in the transfer between media. He's also no mere passive recorder: he uses camera movement, cuts and mise-en-scene to transform Pina's choreography into cinema, introducing new dimensions of movement beyond those of the dancers' bodies. He captures the best of both film and dance. (Pina's people prove excellent film actors, as well, their evocative facial expressions served well by close-ups.) As in The Buena Vista Social Club, Wenders is reluctant to let performances play out in full; he abridges the dances, interrupting them with archival interviews and rehearsal footage. But this is because the dance is not Pina's, or even Pina's, sole subject: it's also the dancers, the philosophy, the feeling. Grade: A-

Watch the trailer (a work of art on its own):